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Law Schools Are in Trouble — Will These Innovations Help?

CUNY School of Law (Wikimedia Commons)

I recall one of my law-school professors derisively commenting that American law schools were furiously pumping out graduates. That was back in 1975 when there were fewer law schools. I believe that prof is still alive, and if so, he probably looks in disgust at present circumstances.

Large percentages of law grads don’t find work in the legal profession, which is actually shrinking as technology does more and more of what JDs used to do, e.g., pouring over the books of case reports searching for useful precedents. Moreover, bar pass rates have fallen as schools admit more marginal students to keep afloat and to satisfy the demands for “diversity.”

In today’s Martin Center article, Chris West looks at three innovations that might help, at least in a small way.

First, some law schools are allowing applicants to supply Graduate Record Exam scores instead of Law School Admission Test scores. That might matter because, as West explains, the GRE is more focused on knowledge of math and science. Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, and Wake Forest are among the schools that have made that move. This change gives law schools a slightly bigger applicant pool, but that won’t do much to solve their underlying problems.

Second, the national move toward the Universal Bar Exam (UBE) could marginally help law schools by making the legal profession less subject to state barriers. “Reciprocity between states,” West explains, “increases the value of a job-seeker’s law degree by removing the bureaucratic hurdle of requiring exams specific to each state. At the same time, it makes legal services more affordable by increasing competition as clients have more law firms from which to choose.”

The third innovation is not really new, but a refinement on something old, namely legal apprenticeship as an alternative to going to law school — and then becoming a legal apprentice. (Most lawyers will tell you that law school is merely a long, costly, mandated prelude to the actual work of learning some field of legal practice.) A few states have long allowed people to enter the profession without having graduated from law school. Few did so, but one state (Washington), has begun a “Law Clerks Program” that has had some success. West writes, “With the support of the state bar association, a volunteer board sets standards and assigns a liaison to a pair of lawyer-apprentices. Participants are also assigned a mentor to track progress as they prepare to take the bar exam. Of the law clerks who took the Washington bar last year, fully 67 percent passed.”

To me, the option of learning the law through actual work in an office rather than sitting in classrooms (nearly all of that learning is promptly forgotten and many of the courses will be of no use at all), is the most interesting, but few state bar associations will think about that.

Innovations or not, the simple fact is that we have too many law schools and some are bound to close.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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